Ask and you may receive

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Within the school environment, a teacher should be accountable for the progress and improvement of a child, writes MOHAN DHALL

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A parent phoned the other day in search of advice about her son. She said, “My son is very clever, but you wouldn’t know it from his school reports”. When questioned she reported that at a recent parent-teacher night she was given her son’s report showing that he had been awarded ‘B’ and ‘C’ for everything – far below his capacity or ability. The teacher said to the parents, “You son is underachieving”. The teacher then stopped, offering nothing more than this statement.

As is the case with most parents, this mother wondered what more she could do. She wondered whether she should have more structure and greater discipline at home. She wondered whether to raise her voice and clarify her expectations to her son, or whether to shrug and give up. The most obvious thing to do escaped her.

She could have asked the teacher, what was being done to remediate and address the underachievement. When I told the parent that she could have inquired of the teacher about her intentions for helping her son, there was a long pause. She then said, “Am I allowed to ask that?”

Um… yes!

Many teachers are dedicated and hard working professionals who continually improve their strategies and find new ways to address specific learning needs of the range of students. However, as with any profession, many teachers also simply treat teaching as a ‘job’ and therefore get into the habit of forgetting to look at a situation with new eyes.

The effect of this is the parent-teacher interview just described. The teacher hands the responsibility for learning to the child and the parent, but does not actively demonstrate accountability, determination or insight. Good teachers do not ‘hit and run’. They do not blame students for underperforming. They take responsibility and ask themselves, “Is there more I can do? Am I contributing to this underachievement? How can I teach this student how to perform to the best of their ability?”

Of course it is possible that a teacher, with the best of intentions, may still not be able to help an underachieving child work to the best of their ability. However, in trying different modes of presentation, in encouraging and supporting, self-esteem is built. Therefore, if nothing else, the student will feel valued and respected – two basic, or fundamental attributes of classrooms where students learn.

The parent was stunned when I told her she had a right to ask the teacher what was proposed to do to help her son to achieve. The parent said she did not know that teachers could be held to account. We then talked through whether she felt confident enough to ask the question of the teacher, “So, what are you doing about it?”

This was clearly a very difficult proposition for the parent. She felt very uncomfortable about the prospect of asking the teacher about what might be done to help her son achieve.

At issue here is our understanding of what a ‘teacher’ may be. The title ‘teacher’ implies an active professional, not a passive one. A teacher is there to teach, not to blame or justify, or avoid responsibility. If a child is underachieving, then it is incumbent on a reasonably well-paid professional to try different strategies to engage the child and support their learning. This includes addressing skills and knowledge gaps, addressing confidence issues based on fear of failure and also finding means by which to shape learning experiences so that they are engaging and foster inclusion.

Parents need to know that their responsibility for assisting their children to learn occurs outside of school hours. During school hours, the responsibility shifts to the teaching profession. Thereby, the only way that parents can shape what is done is through asking appropriate questions and expecting appropriate accountability. Such accountability takes several forms including:

  • A teacher honestly reporting the academic strengths and weakness they perceive of each child.
  • A teacher taking responsibility to address any academic issues and to state clearly what they propose to do and how and when.
  • Teachers initiating follow up at regular intervals so that the student feels guided and the family feels included in the process of addressing any issues. This can easily be arranged through email if direct talking is hard to organise.

In this way schools and families work in partnership. Moreover, if there is this type of alliance then it is highly likely that a student will be in the very best framework for success. This is because there are consistent expectations between school and home, and clear communication.

So the next time you are in a parent-teacher situation and a teacher says, “Your child talks too much,” “Your child works too slowly,” “You child has not done homework,” “Your child could do better if only they were focused,” among other comments, ask the teacher what strategies they will implement to address these matters. Then ask if there can be a follow up in four weeks to see how things are progressing.

Be brave – ask and you may receive.

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Mohan was a high school teacher for 26 years. He is currently Academic Leader at Potentia Tutoring, a lecturer in education at university and author. He is also CEO of the Australian and Global tutoring associations.
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